30 May 2008

A New Kind of Conversation - A New Kind of Democracy

In the old media, people chose between various options, magazines like the Nation or the New Republic, for example. In the new media, people write their own material on blogs rather than simply commenting on the essays of elites.

In the old democracy, people chose between various options, candidates like George H. Bush and Michael Dukakis, for example. In the new democracy, people will collaborate to create their own policies, rather than simply griping about the proposals of elites.

There are a variety of technologies that will enable this. Publishing and communication no longer needs to be routed through central points like the local newspaper or TV and radio stations. The Internet is going to be essential to this at some level. But the real advances in technology have little to do with hardware and a great deal to do with our ability to create a conversation.

Creative dialogue ought to be the fuel for policy formulation. Simply learning what is going on in people’s lives and, rather than imposing some notion of how or why they deserve their fate or are victims, creating a conversation about what is and what is possible. Currently, with the emphasis on elections, this kind of conversation is nearly impossible for candidates. It’s hard to formulate policy that works when you’re busy imposing your view of the world onto people’s consciousness.

The real catch 22 for policy formulation is the seeming intractability of reality from perception. A rock doesn’t much care about your perception of it: thrown at the proper trajectory, it’ll smack you in the side of the head. By contrast, social realities are rooted in perceptions. You’ll see it when you believe it, is the quip. David Bohm said that most apparent problems were actually paradoxes that traced back to a root paradox about self awareness.
“However, when one beings to think about himself , and especially about his own thoughts and feelings, then if one observes carefully, he will find that this approach leads to a paradoxical pattern of activity. The paradox is that whereas one is treating his own thinking and feeling as something separate from and independent of the thought that is thinking about them, it is evident that in fact there is, and can be, no such separation and independence.”

The technological innovation that is needed for the next major advance in democracy is the ability to suspend advocacy. The next democracy will have more to do with conversations than speeches. The point is not to win the argument; the point is to adapt and adapt to reality.

Lest you too quickly scoff at this possibility, we might be moving in this direction. McCain has proposed regular sessions with Congress akin to those argumentative bouts between the British Prime Minister and Parliament. Obama has said that he will post all non-emergency legislation online for five days, soliciting comments from anyone and everyone before he would sign it. These are small steps, but they seem to me indicative of the kind of promises candidates must make to get our vote.

When groups begin to convene to formulate and implement policy, we have a chance for policy to become more important than campaigning. Maybe the best part about this is what it suggests about a shift in power.

Russell Ackoff makes the distinction between "power over" and "power to." If you have power over someone, you can restrain them from doing certain things. You keep them from polluting or driving on the wrong side of the road. If you give people power to, you enable them to do certain things. They can make money in jobs you prepared them for with education or live longer in spite of cancer that you cured.

As democracy is now practiced, it seems to much focused on power over - who is going to win, which party is going to rule? In this alternative democracy, the focus can land where it ought: on power to.


Dave said...

I love your thoughts.

I make a living advocating and negotiating; and the longer I do it, it becomes apparent that advocation and negotiation are poor substitutes for convesation and collaboration.

Over time, I've changed my practice of law, where possible to try to talk to the other side. Converse as you call it. What is it that you want, need? Then, what can my client do to meet your wants and needs? Do you really want and need all of what you say?

The result can be not a middle ground of negotiation, but a plan to better both sides, the "power to...."

cce said...

Admittedly I am ill-rested and therefore none too sharp right now, but this may be the single most positive piece on blogging that I have read in a long time. (I realize you are writing about more than just blogs but I do think that bloggers get a bad rap as self involved whiners with little of value to say or express...but as a collective voice, if bloggers somehow represent a broad slice of society and politics and policy begin to morph and accommodate and respond to the blogosphere then we all really aren't wasting our time.)

Ron Davison said...

thanks. It does take so long to get past the defense of opinions to the exchange of ideas.

hmm. Thank you for the comment. It is very cool even with the caveat.

HRH said...

I think you are right. I am afraid it is going to be a very slow transition. I wonder how it will play out and if the squeaky wheel will rule. I love CCE's thoughts (here and in general...)

Jennifer H said...

I've wondered for a long time what a single person can do to have any kind of impact on the political process. I think a lot of people are getting tired of the influence old media has over that process, and I think you're right that new media can change how people make themselves heard. Protests in front of the Capitol will still go on, I'm sure, but this other venue for protest that we're all discovering has the potential to reach so much farther. Further? I'm tired, too.

Ron Davison said...

Yeah, I tend to give credence to notions that might take decades to play out. I blame it on reading too much history.

jennifer h,
single people probably have less impact on politics than married people, but only because it seems to give them an edge in elections. But seriously, though, what is the quip? In an avalanche, every snowflake claims its innocence.

Anonymous said...

I question the motives of Obama and McCain. They say they are willing to listen to other opinions, but will that really influence their policy decisions? I suspect it's just theater, a continuation of the illusion that the people have power.

Politicians already know what the people want (an end to the Iraq war leaps immediately to mind), but they don't care. I'm not sure that creating more places to express opinion is really going to change that.

Jennifer H said...

(Yes, I meant "one person," and yes, you're funny.) Guess I need to type and think simultaneously, which will really slow me down. ;-)

Excellent sentence, this: "In an avalanche, every snowflake claims its innocence."

Ron Davison said...

I guess I'm hoping that this goes beyond opinion expressing to policy formulation as a joint activity.

jennifer h,
the avalanche sentence is not mine, so I can readily agree with you. I think it was Scott Simmerman's line.